Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversations on Charlie’s book Start Finishing. In our last conversation, Barb Suarez talked about honoring yourself in your new normal of parenthood. In today’s conversation, Danielle LaSusa talks about how the underlying value of curiosity fuels the Five Key Virtues necessary for doing our best work.
In Chapter 2 of Start Finishing, Charlie talks about the Five Keys (or habits, or virtues) that will help you overcome the “air sandwich” between your best work and your current day-to-day reality. Those five are: Intention, Awareness, Boundaries, Courage, and Discipline.
Like Charlie, I’m a philosopher by training, and I want to offer an additional virtue for getting to your best work. I believe this missing sixth virtue is foundational, making all the others possible.
Good! Then you already have this virtue! Curiosity, when it comes to yourself and your inner life, can be a tool to help you develop the other key virtues for getting you to your best work.
Curiosity Is the Engine of Awareness
As Charlie says, awareness is critical for knowing what our best work is and for being present to our shifting emotions and presence when doing that work. As a fellow philosopher, I am equally committed to the philosophical maxim to “Know thyself.”
Unfortunately, I think it’s not always easy to do that. Either we think, “Of course I know myself! I spend all day with me, don’t I? What the hell are you talking about?” Or we think, “I really have no idea who I am, and don’t really know how to find out.”
Telling people simply to “be aware” can feel empty because it’s hard to sustain. It’s why simply “being aware” of your breath in a ten-minute meditation session can feel damn near impossible. Your attention wanders, you get bored, and you lose interest.
However, curiosity is awareness’s friendly and inviting close cousin; it has the connotation of lightness and even playfulness. Curiosity activates your awareness. It is the motivating engine that drives it.
For example, in meditation, you may ask: What exactly is my breath doing now? How does it feel entering and leaving my body? Is coming in the left nostril or the right? Or both? Is it cool or warm? Does it change depending on my inhale or exhale? What is actually happening now? And now? And now?
Curiosity helps focus and sustain your awareness, so that you can know yourself better and get to your best work.
Curiosity Invites Growth Instead of Shame and Blame
Curiosity itself does not involve the judgment or evaluation that, for many creatives, can be overactive. Instead, curiosity invites an open, receptive, and expansive mindset, free from judgment. As such, it helps short-circuit the shame and blame that can inevitably arise when we’re not getting to our best work, and it orients us instead toward growth.
Meditators and philosophers alike say that if we want to truly know ourselves we must have a “beginner’s mind,” in which we set aside assumptions and prejudices and start fresh. We must first admit that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and we are open to learning and discovering more, allowing ourselves to find honest answers and creative solutions.
This judgment-free beginner’s mind can help you clarify intentions, set boundaries, and stay disciplined in your work. For example, let’s say you’re struggling with boundaries. You haven’t made space for your work because it would require extra hours of childcare, and you feel guilty about that. Ask yourself: What story am I telling myself about this? Am I afraid that I’ll be a bad parent? That my kids won’t love me? That my mother-in-law will judge me? That taking this time makes me selfish? Why do I think this? And, perhaps more importantly, is it true?
Rather than assuming that you already know all the reasons you’re failing, and reinforcing your self-limiting beliefs, you can instead get curious about those beliefs. No need to shame or blame; just wonder. That wonder opens up your ability to be honest with yourself, to find creative solutions, and to grow.
Curiosity Interrupts Habitual Patterns of Resistance
Discipline may be the virtue that many of us struggle with the most. You may have set some defined goals and cleared a focus block of time, but when it comes down to actually doing the work, suddenly what your ex-fling from college is posting on Instagram has become must-know information.
When that urge to wander off strikes, get curious. Ask yourself, what does this itch literally feel like in your body? Are your fingers tingling? Is your chest tightening? Is your jaw clenched? Also ask: What are you really avoiding? Are you afraid the work won’t be any good? Is that a voice of self-doubt ringing in your head? Do you need to listen to that voice?
In the same way curiosity interrupts the shame and blame game, it also interrupts the habitual compulsion to escape. You can ask yourself what it might feel like to continue working despite the itch to run away, and thereby hold firm to your discipline.
Curiosity Is Self-Correcting
Curiosity and courage, perhaps more than any of the other virtue pairings, have a mutually supportive relationship. Sometimes the very reason we are not more curious is because we are afraid of what we might find. It takes courage to ask ourselves questions and go seek answers. (Tweet this.) Brené Brown puts it, “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty.”
An amazing thing about curiosity is that it can always be turned back on itself. If being curious brings up fear, get curious about the fear! What does fear feel like in your body? Where does it live? Your stomach? Your shoulder blades? What fearful stories are you telling yourself? Are those stories true? What would it feel like to act, in spite of fear? When we become curious about our fear, we lessen its ability to control us.
Curiosity is an incredibly powerful tool for getting to our best work, helping us to develop the other important virtues of awareness, intention, boundaries, discipline, and courage. An added bonus: the more you cultivate curiosity about your inner life, the more that curious beginner’s mind will become directed outward, too. You’ll find yourself curious about other people and things, and the world becomes infused with wonder, and dare I say, even a little magic. You’ll see your best work, and its place in the world, in a whole new light.
So now I’m curious: What aspect of curiosity are you curious to try out in your own work?
Want more information? Start Finishing, the book that kicked off all of these Core Conversations, is your deeper dive into all aspects of how to turn your ideas into projects, and how to start finishing your best work.